This paper discusses the evolution of the accounting officer role and its modern function in government. Accounting officers are always the permanent secretary of a department and are responsible for ensuring that government spending meets the four tests of regularity, propriety, value for money, and feasibility. Where spending does not, accounting officers are empowered by Parliament and the Treasury to refuse to proceed without written instruction from the minister, who then takes responsibility for the decision alone.

Accounting officers are directly accountable to the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament – and so this is a significant exception to the traditional doctrine of ministerial accountability in which civil servants are accountable to ministers, and ministers then to Parliament. The accounting officer role therefore sheds light on how the accountability structures in Whitehall have developed – and how they might develop further.